The Man Who Knew Too Much [1956)

Netflix seems to be down tonight.

I tried several times.  Several movies.  Several fixes.

And so it is only fitting that history should trump the ephemeral stages of technological development.

Yes, time for a good old VHS tape.

And not a film about which I’ve previously written.

While I have surveyed many of the early Hitchcock films, I never wrote about the original version of this film.

1934.

To my knowledge, this is the only film of Alfred Hitchcock’s early career which he chose to remake.

Just on this fact alone, it would seem that the story was either very dear to the auteur or that he couldn’t resist something about the plot.

Granted, the two films are considerably different.

Even on a surface level, the 1934 version was (of course) in black and white.

But this was a VistaVision, Technicolor production.

1956.

22 years later.

For better or worse, I was familiar first with the earlier version.

It is a film I should revisit.

But it was not what I would call a “home run”.

The one aspect of the original which one might miss in the remake is the presence of Peter Lorre.

But we must move on to the future.  The present.

1956.

Jimmy Stewart plays the leading male role.  A doctor from Indianapolis.

Doris Day plays his wife.

The action is set for a good bit in Morocco.

Specifically, Marrakesh.

Indeed, the beginning of the film is a sort of travelogue.

In other words, its a good excuse to show off the exotic locale in North Africa.

Camels.  Veils.  [that one’s important]  The social tradition of eating with the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand.  While leaving the left hand in the lap.

All very edifying and exciting.

But Doris Day is suspicious from the start.

If we knew nothing of Hitchcock, we’d say her paranoia was unfounded.

But, in fact, it’s Jimmy Stewart’s ease which is the fateful misstep early on.

And so this movie is about suspicion.

Who can we trust?

In this age of anxiety (thank you W.H. Auden), everyone and everything is suspect.

The only true bliss is ignorance.

[and perhaps my only wisdom is that of paraphrase]

One thing which escaped me the first time I saw this version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (in the theater…lucky me) was a funny detail about Brenda de Banzie.

Yes, dear readers (and fans of Peter Sellers), Ms. de Banzie would later appear as the annoying, flamboyant Angela Dunning in The Pink Panther (1963).

Indeed, her role as the terror of Cortina (d’Ampezzo) was her second-to-last film.

But here she is a much more mysterious character.

I will leave it at that.

We get some interesting things in this film.

“Arabs” in disguise.

Which is to say, certain personages of the spook variety in brown makeup (and native garb).

One need not look very far back in history to find a poignant parallel.

Consider, for instance, the “Basra prison incident” of 2005.

I’m guessing that T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) would provide another example, though I am no expert on this matter.

As are almost all Hitchcock films, this one is a tense affair.

Doris Day, in particular, does a surprising job of portraying the personal terror of her character.

Perhaps most notable about this film is the musical component.

As an accomplished percussionist in my own right, I heartily appreciate Hitchcock’s attention to the intricacies of an orchestral percussion section.

Indeed, the film begins with a close-up of this little-featured “choir” (in addition to the three trumpets and three trombones at the bottom of the frame).

What is most remarkable is Hitchcock’s use of the musical score (in various permutations) to tell this unique story.

Funniest is the shot of the cymbalist’s sheet music.

It is nearly a complete tacit…save for one fateful crash.

I fondly remember (with some measure of anxiety) a time when I manned the cymbals for the overture of Verdi’s La forza del destino.

It was a similar affair.

Interminable waiting.

And if you miss your one crash?  Even in rehearsal?

Well, you are screwed!

The judging stares of oboists are enough to melt a man…

But the musical score appears elsewhere.

In the private box.

Perhaps a page-turner for an assassin.

Most vividly, Hitchcock makes the score come alive in a fascinating series of extreme close-ups.

It is like a very erudite version of “follow the bouncing ball”.

So yes…some of our action happens at the Royal Albert Hall.

In an interesting twist of fate, usual Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann garners copious screen time as the conductor…OF ANOTHER COMPOSER’S WORK!

Were it Beethoven, I’d understand.

But the piece is Storm Clouds Cantata by Arthur Benjamin (who?) and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis (not to be confused with [Percy] Wyndham Lewis).

And yet it is a moving piece.

The London Symphony Orchestra sounds lovely (really magical!) in their on-screen segments.

But the real Leitmotiv of our film is “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)”.

Speaking of magic…it is always a gossamer thing to hear Doris Day sing this song in The Man Who Knew Too Much.

I remember a time when I didn’t know this song at all.

Being in a studio with Corinne Bailey Rae and hearing a playback of her wonderful band own this song.

And my discovery of Sly and the Family Stone’s inimitable version (sung by Rose Stone).

But few movie music moments equal Doris Day in her Marrakesh hotel room singing “Que Sera, Sera…” with little desafinado Christopher Olson.

The only ones which come close are Rita Hayworth (actually Jo Ann Greer?) singing the Rodgers and Hart masterpiece “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” the next year (1957) in Pal Joey and Ms. Hayworth “singing” (actually Anita Kert Ellis) “Put the Blame on Mame” in Gilda (1946).

An interesting note about this version of The Man Who Knew Too Much…

It seems to be a sort of forgotten classic, wedged as it is between the first of my Hitchcock “holy trinity” (Rear Window, 1954) and the other two perfect films (Vertigo, 1958, and North by Northwest, 1959).

Actually, this was a period of experimentation for Hitchcock.

Our film most precisely follows the odd comedy (!) The Trouble with Harry (1955) and precedes the black and white hand-wringer The Wrong Man (released later in 1956).

But The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) should not be forgotten!

It is such a beautifully-shot film!

Robert Burks’ cinematography is divine.

And George Tomasini’s editing is artfully deft.

Like To Catch a Thief (which is actually on Netflix in the U.S. [last time I checked]), The Man Who Knew Too Much is a film which perhaps needs multiple viewings to be truly appreciated.

-PD

Spalovač mrtvol [1969)

This is one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen.

The Cremator.

Directed by Juraj Herz.

Even if you are familiar with the Czechoslovak New Wave, this film will still take you by surprise.

It is a mélange of times and themes.

And truly a horror story.

But there is a Brechtian detachment at work.

This would explain labels such as “comedy horror”.

It’s perhaps more absurd and surreal than it is funny.

But it is certainly frightening.

A very creepy piece of cinema.

Everything revolves around a crematory official/director named Kopfrkingl.

That name alone is enough to jar the most languid viewer at each pronunciation.

Historically speaking, this was not a successful film upon release.

No, it was too weird to be incorporated into the Czechoslovak communist pantheon moving forward.  And so the world would have to wait until 1989 to get a look at this thing.

The whole film feels like a dream.

A bad dream.  With some particularly vivid violence.  [Or vintage violence.]

Mr. Kopfrkingl is a truly, outrageously delusional man.

And he only becomes more so as the film goes on.

Modern viewers might notice a bit of Eric Cartman in Rudolf Hrušínský’s performance as Kopfrkingl.

Seen behind an iconic ribbon microphone, Kopfrkingl invokes the manic strains of Hitler and we feel the sick surge of idiocy grab hold of our dear cremator.

The strangest part of Kopfrkingl’s delusion is his obsession with Tibet.

It makes me wonder whether David Lynch saw this prior to Twin Peaks?

Thubten Gyatso dies, and Hitler comes to power.

1933.

Based on a novel by Ladislav Fuks, this tale must be seen to be believed.

There are short-circuit edits akin to Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker. 

Indeed, director Herz is himself Jewish.

Truth be told, there have been few films which deal with the Holocaust as effectively (if obliquely) as The Cremator

Every shot of Hrušínský from the back evokes the Peter Lorre of M. 

This is a thoroughly fascinating cinematic experience.

 

-PD

M [1931)

Perhaps we pay too much attention to the story.

We all love a good story.

But the mark of the genius filmmaker may be found in their method of narrative.  The art of how they tell their stories.

To be quite honest, I wasn’t thrilled to return to this Fritz Lang masterpiece, but I’m glad I did.

It is very much how I feel about Hitchcock’s Psycho.  It is a wonderful film, but it’s not something I want to throw on once a week during the course of kicking back.

M, like Psycho, is a supremely tense film.  Nowadays, when we think of Hitchcock, we might reflect on his tastefulness.  Think about it (says Jerry Lee).  In Hitchcock’s day (a long, productive “day”), things which are now shown with impunity were positively disallowed for a Hollywood filmmaker.  Blood and guts…no.  Hitchcock was forced to artfully suggest.

The strictures guiding Fritz Lang (29 years earlier) were even more conservative.  But even so, M is a genuinely terrifying movie.

Terrifying films are rarely relaxing.  They are not meant to be.

But as I had seen this one before, I was able to focus more on the method employed by Lang.  The truth is, M is a masterpiece.  It really is the treatment of a brute subject (murder) with incredible subtlety.

What is most radical about M is its counterintuitive take on crime.

Within this film, crime is divided into capital and noncapital offenses.

In M, a band of criminals exists which seeks to put a serial killer out of business.  It may seem a strange turn of phrase, but this killer is bad for the business of other criminals (mainly thieves and such).

A town in terrorized.  The police regularly raid establishments.  You must have your “papers” with you at all times.

And so those who survive on crime are so desperate as to adopt (temporarily) the same goal as the police:  catch the killer.

It is not giving much away to tell you that Peter Lorre is the killer.  This is not a whodunit.  It’s a “what’s gonna happen”.  That I will leave to your viewing pleasure.

While I am on the subject of Lorre, let me just say that this is one of the finest, weirdest performances in cinema history.  The final scene is one of absolutely raw nerves.  Lorre is not the cute, vaguely-foreign character he would become in The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca.  Lorre is stark-raving mad.

His attacks of psychosis are chilling to observe.  But really, it is his final outburst which tops any bit of lunacy I’ve ever seen filmed.

Today there would likely be plenty of actors ready to play such a macabre role, but in 1931 this was a potential death wish.

That Lorre put his soul into it tells us something important about him.  First, he was capable of being more than a “sidekick” (as he was in the previously-mentioned Bogart films).  Second, he was dedicated to the art of acting.  Lorre was not “mailing it in”.  Playing such a role can’t be particularly healthy for one’s mental state.

But there’s a further thing.  His final monologue is filled with such angst.  Let us consider the year:  1931.  In the midst of the Great Depression.

But also we must consider the country:  Germany.  These were the waning years of the Weimar Republic.  Three important dates would end this democratic republic:  Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor (Jan. 30, 1933), 9/11 the Reichstag fire (Feb. 27, 1933), and the Enabling Act (Mar. 23, 1933).

The era of M (1931) was the era of Heinrich Brüning’s “deflationary” monetary policy as German Chancellor.  I put deflationary in quotation marks because Wikipedia’s current description might better be termed contractionary monetary policy.

As Wikipedia would tell it, Brüning was essentially instating fiscal austerity (that hot-button term of recent times) concomitantly with the aforementioned monetary approach.  This was, of course, the failure which paved the way for Adolf Hitler to take control of Germany.

And so we find that the historian Webster Tarpley is right when he refers to certain modern-day policy makers as austerity “ghouls”.  Either conservative/fascist leaders across the globe have no grasp of history, or they are looking forward with anticipation to the next Hitler or Mussolini.

It should be noted that Tarpley is coming from a socialist perspective rooted in the Democratic Party of FDR.  His opposition, therefore, would likely brand him as liberal/communist and through slippery-slope logic see the policies he espouses as paving the way for the next Stalin or Mao.

And so goes the political circus…ad nauseam.

Returning to film, we must at least consider this situation in Germany.  The country was still paying war reparations from WWI (though this was becoming impossible because of the internal economic woes).

What is perhaps most astonishing is how much Peter Lorre’s character prefigures the Hitler caricature which has come down to us from history.

War-based societies have a compulsion to kill.  Germany found out the hard way that this is not a healthy default.  Sadly, today’s Germany has not checked the most warmongering modern country on Earth (the United States) enough to make any difference.

The United States has, for a long time now, been breathing…seething for a war.  The “masters of war” are all wearing suits.  Only suits want to go to war.  A true warrior does not want war.  Only those who will go unscathed actively invite war.

But there is an insanity in suits.  A compulsion.  Don’t let the suit fool you.  A suit is, for us grown-ups, the equivalent of a piece of candy…or an apple…or a balloon for a child.  A suit advocating war is saying, “Keep your eyes on my suit.  I know best.  Trust in me.  Look at my impressive degree.”

The suits like places such as Raven Rock Mountain.  The suits won’t be on the battlefield.  And don’t let the 10% who actually fought in a war fool you:  they were in non-combat operations.  Their daddies made sure of it.

So keep your eyes open for the M of American cinema.  Who is the next fascist to take the stage?  Hitler had a Charlie Chaplin moustache.  How dangerous could he be?  Trump has a ginger comb-over.  Surely he’s harmless, right?

 

-PD

 

Secret Agent [1936)

If this is propaganda, it is among the most artful of all time.  For it seems to emanate from the mind of an individualist and patriot.  Alfred Hitchcock.

We get our subject material from Somerset Maugham.  Ashenden.

“The wrong man!  Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.”  Thus laughs “the General” Peter Lorre…a sort of lovable psychopath (if such a thing is possible).  Yes, the wrong man.  It is to Hitchcock’s oeuvre what prostitution is to Jean-Luc Godard’s.  But it is a grotesque moment.  The wrong man.  In this case, it went all the way:  they killed the wrong man.  Just an innocent old man with a wife and a dog.  All in a day’s work for a covert operative…Lorre’s laughter seems to tell us.

No.  Lorre is no typical agent.  He’s a hitman.  He doesn’t mind killing.  In fact, he kind-of enjoys it.  Takes pride in his craft (as it were).  Very clean, he says…strangling, a knife…no guns…too noisy.

But let’s back up to John Gielgud.  To make a spy, you kill the man.  It is quasi-Christian.  The old is gone.  Behold, the new has come.

The perfect spy has no past.  This sort of agent wakes up to read his own obituary.  Before long, he has a new identity.

Though this film predates WWII, its subject matter of WWI is certainly infused with the building tension of a second continent-wide conflagration.

And again we witness James Bond far before Ian Fleming birthed him.  The milieu is the same.  Gielgud reports to “R”…like the “M” we would all come to know and love.  And of course Lorre…himself an M of another type (see Fritz Lang).

Trouble in the Middle East.  Why can’t it be Tahiti?  Where’s Leonard Bernstein when you need him???

“The Hairless Mexican” a.k.a. “The General” Peter Lorre…kinda like the Federal Reserve:  not Federal and no reserves.  Yes, Lorre is quite hirsute.  As for his rank, it is as dubious as his other winning personality traits.

Gielgud’s not very careful…right from the start.  I suppose they should have trained the chap in the dark arts before sending him out into the field.  At least the field is Switzerland (Allen Dulles’ future stomping grounds).

Back to our Bond parallels…the gorgeous Madeleine Carroll, like Eva Green in Casino Royale, stipulates a separate-bed rule as part of her cover (Gielgud’s “wife”).  We wonder whether her character, like Hitchcock and Green’s Vesper Lynd, is of Catholic upbringing.

But for the main course…we get some rather convincing ethics from Hitchcock–a morality which we would scarcely see again in the future of film through to the 21st century.  To wit, espionage is the dirtiest of jobs.  Never mind the old trick of digging though a rubbish bin:  the whole operation is filthy and loused up with sickening concessions.  Hitchcock gets right to the point quite forthright:  murder.  Many of the darkest jobs are just that!  One can spin it anyway one wants, but it is still cold-blooded.

It’s not all fun and games, Gielgud tries to convey to Madeleine.  If you’re here for a thrill, you’d best recalibrate your perspective:  things are about to get real ugly!

It is some scary shit.  Imagine Olivier Messiaen and Giacinto Scelsi collaborating with Morton Feldman for a 45 second piece.  It’s called Sonata for Corpse and Organ.  Their contact has been murdered.  The assassin pulled out all the stops.  Just after the prelude, a fugue of struggle ensued which left a button from the killer’s garments clutched in the dead organist’s hand.  We get a rich, chromatic chord until Gielgud and Lorre realize there’s far too little harmonic rhythm to this chorale.  The bloke’s been whacked (slumped upon the keys).

This button, a single-use MacGuffin, leads them to offing the wrong man.  Poor old Percy Marmont…

At this, Gielgud is ready to quit…sickened by the thought of having innocent blood on his hands.  Credit Madeleine Carroll with a nice performance…especially when she plays the straight (horrified) woman to Lorre’s laughter.

And so, again like Casino Royale, Gielgud and Carroll (madly in love) decide to dispense with the whole mission and pack it in (complete with a resignation letter to “R” from Gielgud).

I won’t give away too much.  Lorre is fantastic:  both ridiculously awkward in his humor and deft in his acting.

Unfortunately, the artfulness of the film which Hitchcock had lovingly built up is marred by a somewhat daft, abrupt ending.

Like this.

-PD

Passage to Marseille [1944)

The Maginot Line was the greatest “oops” in the history of military strategy.  It’s not often we walk into a movie theater and hear about this relic, nor about the Siegfried Line on the other side.  That is why we must look to classic cinema for these and other lessons.  Make no mistake, this film is not primarily about that ill-fated Titanic of fortifications which was outflanked.

Sydney Greenstreet makes mention of both lines in the fictional build up to real war.  Greenstreet is once again the slippery villain…this time a Major in the French army who would side with Petain and the Nazis.  Peter Lorre, for once, is a good guy (though a pickpocket/safecracker by profession).  Claude Rains is convincing and distinguished as Captain Freycinet, but it is Humphrey Bogart as Matrac who leads the show.

For Bogart’s character Jean Matrac we must look to another chapter of history:  that of Jean-Paul Marat.  Bogart plays a radical journalist who ends up being framed by the government of France and sent to the penal colony at Cayenne, French Guiana.  Sound familiar?  To Francophiles it certainly should.  We must remember Lieutenant-colonel Alfred Dreyfus (another great “oops” of French history).  Dreyfus was wrongly accused of being a spy and sent to (you guessed it) French Guiana [in fact, to the worst part:  Devil’s Island].

And so…we have Bogart and Lorre and three other “convicts” (some legitimately guilty and others, like Bogart, there on dubious charges) escape in a canoe.  I won’t go too much into plot detail in case you feel like actually watching this thing (what a concept!).

The theme, on the other hand, is worth elaboration.  We are dealing with patriotism in spite of corrupt governance.  As St. Thomas Aquinas said (and I paraphrase), “An unjust law is no law at all.”  Another page from history.  Here we see the principle of Natural Law which would attract none other than Martin Luther King, Jr. (who cited the same sentiment in his Letter From Birmingham Jail in 1963).

We now live in a time and (we in the United States) a country which is as dynamic with vile antagonists as was France during WWII.  Knowing history becomes paramount.  Knowledge (as James Madison pointed out) is essential for popular governance.  Facts are weapons.

Bogart ends up worthy of being a subject for Jacques-Louis David by film’s conclusion (I’m being purposefully cryptic), but not before giving the Nazis a good lashing.  Bogie’s character is similar to the one he played in Key Largo.  Matrac’s disillusionment almost makes him become the complete opposite of his former self.  In an instance fit for bystander law, Bogart intercedes on behalf of a young boy.  The young boy revives the national pride in Bogart–that fire for justice.

We in America would do well to remember the Maginot Line when disillusioned with a government we feel no longer represents us.  Even the Prophet Mohammed spoke of the scholar’s ink as superior to the martyr’s blood.  Everyone with a mouse to click is fighting.  Every blog, post, and tweet is a riposte.  Every dollar a vote.

Vive la France!  And long live the United States of America!

-PD

The Maltese Falcon [1941)

Bogart is our “three day stubble” hero–our five-o’clock shadow warrior.  “Tough without a gun,” said Raymond Chandler.  Indeed, Bogart as Sam Spade herein disarms a couple of gun-wielding punks through his ingenuity alone.  Quick movements.  Think fast.

In a tough profession one must roll with the punches.  Bogie’s partner is murdered?  Life must go on.  Extra space on the signage?  Put my full name:  Samuel Spade.

Yes, Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) is indispensable.  John Huston turns in an astounding film for a first-time director.  But the whole enterprise is carried by Humphrey.

There is a reason why Huston was slighted by the French New Wave and Bogart was not.  Huston was not at all a bad director.  It was just that the discrepancy became clear when the brilliant Bogart was placed at the disposal of Howard Hawks or Nicholas Ray.  One needs only watch another juggernaut debut (Breathless by Godard) to see the esteem which Bogie accrued with the French film culture which would give intellectual validity to American films previously considered mere pulp entertainment.

 

-PD